Today we’re going to talk about stakes, which in short is the bad stuff that’s going to happen to your character if they don’t achieve their goal (or if they do – depending on your character arc).
Stakes are consequences, but more than that, stakes help us as writers create and maintain tension through scenes that otherwise could be rather bland.
This week, we’re going to have a look at what character stakes are and 2 different categories of stakes to use in your story – with plenty of examples to get you started.
1. What are character stakes?
Character stakes are what your character will suffer if they do not achieve their goal. This applies to scene goals as well as story goals – meaning that for every choice your character makes or decision they take, you should have an idea of what is at stake for them.
If there’s nothing at stake for your characters then your story is going to pretty boring. Even if you’ve got all the conflict in the world: flashy battles, razor-sharp arguments, roaring disputes; without stakes your story will fall flat. There has to be a reason your character puts himself through the battles, the arguments and the disputes, a reason he can’t turn away from acheiving his goal. Ask yourself: what has he got to lose?
The answer to that question is what’s at stake.
Let’s look at two examples.
Example 1: Lord of the Rings & Story Stakes
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s story goal is to get the ring to Mordor and destroy it. Pretty cool character goal, right? Well… not on its own. The reason it makes a good character goal is because of the stakes at play. What happens if Frodo fails? Middle Earth is doomed. What happens if Frodo suceeds? Middle Earth is saved.
Now we have stakes we have a good story goal – and one the character (Frodo) has a really good reason to want to achieve (because the consequence of not doing it – i.e. the end of Middle Earth) would be pretty catastrophic.
Example 2: About Time & Scene Stakes
If you haven’t seen About Time it’s about a young man (Tim) who discovers he can time travel by stepping into a dark space, closing his eyes, bunching his fists and thinking about where he wants to go. A bit like Dorothy, but without the glittering fashion sense.
In one of the early scenes, Tim meets a woman and they spark a connection. But, because of time travel, he accidentally makes it so that that meeting never happens. Thus Tim’s new scene goal is to find the woman he had a connection with and meet her all over again.
This would be a pretty frivalous scene goal if we didn’t have stakes at play. What will it cost Tim if he doesn’t meet Mary again? If the answer to that question was ‘nothing’ then the scene wouldn’t be very interesting for us to watch – but it will cost Tim something.
You see, built into Tim’s early character introductions was the fact that he’s been unlucky in love and hasn’t felt a ‘spark’ with a woman in a long while. So when he meets Mary, it’s a big deal. If he can’t find her again? Well then, he will always wonder what if.
Even with all the conflict in the world without stakes your story will fall flat. There has to be a reason your character puts himself through the conflict, a reason he can’t turn away from acheiving his goal. What has he got to lose?Tweet
Summary: What are stakes?
Stakes are what it costs a character to perform or not perform an action. For each goal, whether it is a story goal or a scene goal, there should be a consquence to suceeding and failing. Without this consequence, there’s no reason for your character to suffer as much as they do to achieve it (not to mention it’ll be boring for your reader/viewer)
2. The types of character stakes
We’ve already seen two different kinds of character stakes above.
- Save the world
- Avoid personal hurt/distress
If Frodo doesn’t deliver the ring to Mordor, he will not save the world.
If Tim doesn’t find Mary, he could be unhappy for the rest of his life.
These are two very different stakes that highlight the different categories that your stakes can fall into. The first one, save the world, is about Frodo’s physical safety and the safety of those around him. The second one, find Mary, is about Tim’s personal happiness and wellbeing. If Frodo doesn’t save the world, then he could die. If Tim doesn’t find Mary he won’t die, but he won’t be happy.
For those that are familiar’s with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this might sound familiar. It’s because these two categories of stakes mirror it:
Frodo’s stakes sits within our basic needs (which include both physiological and safety needs). Tim’s stakes sit within our psychological needs, which include our sense of belonging and self esteem (we’re not going to include the self-actualisation – and you’re going to see why in next week’s post).
Within each category, there are a variety of different guises that your stakes can take, but what’s important to remember is that if your character’s physical wellbeing/freedom/ability to live isn’t being affected by what’s at stake then it more than likely fall into psychological needs than basic needs.
|Basic Needs||Psychological Needs|
|Personal safety||Spiritual fulfillment (love, career, family)|
|Monetary / livelihood||Reputation|
Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘This is all well and good Sophie but what does sanity mean as a stake?’
Fret not – let’s dive into some examples shall we?
Basic Needs: Examples of stakes
Personal safety: If Johnny doesn’t find £10 by the end of the school day, the playground bully will break his arm
Community/world safety: If Sasha doesn’t block the proposal for a nuclear power plant to be built in her small town then half the town will have their houses demolished
Monetary/livelihood: If Kim doesn’t win the village fete then her bakery business will have to close.
Freedom: If Mickey doesn’t evade the cops that are chasing him then he’ll be locked up for life.
Sanity: If Sarah doesn’t stop Bad Guys Intl. from releasing noxious gas into the air then everyone will lose their memories
Psychological Needs: Examples of stakes
Spiritual fulfillment: If Polly doesn’t get the job as Chief Marketing Officer she won’t be able to prove her father wrong and show how capable she is.
Romantic fulfillment: If Marcus can’t convince Lawrence to marry him then he knows he will be unhappy for the rest of his life.
Family fulfillment: If Linnea doesn’t reconcile with her brother before it’s too late then she will regret it forever.
Justice: If Lamar doesn’t win the case against Bad Boys Intl. then everyone affected by their noxious gas will not be compensated for all the years they lost trying to recover their memories.
Reputation: If Kirk doesn’t solve the homicide case then she will lose out on the promotion to senior detective (not a real title, I know, I am spitballing ideas here)
Happiness: If Tsubasa doesn’t buy back her grandmother’s farm then she will not fulfill her dream of watching her own grandchildren run around the backyard and therefore she won’t be happy.
Summary: Types of stakes
There are effectively 2 types of stakes you can play with. One of them affects your character’s basic needs: surivival, security and ability to live free and unharmed. The second affects your character’s psychological needs: their happiness, how fulfilled they feel, their level of self-esteem. An easy way to distinguish them is to ask “is it directly life-threatening?” If the answer is no then your stakes as psychological.
So now we know (a) what stakes are (the bad stuff!) and (b) what kind of stakes we can use in our story.
Next week we’re going to talk about how, even when you’ve got all of these things in play, there is still one thing you need to do to make your stakes really juicy!